“I’m running away,” she said.
This didn’t surprise me. The short black evening dress and expensive coat she wore were strange clothes for a hitchhiker. Her disheveled blonde hair, smudged make-up, laddered stockings, and scuffed high-heels were further giveaways.
Then she added, “From a demon,” and I found myself trying to decide whether to help her or dump her then and there on the side of the A12.
I drove on. To our left, the concrete and glass city I knew to be BT’s Suffolk-based main research labs, to our right, the modern Legoland of Martlesham Heath village.
“His name is Ash,” my passenger offered.
I’d only picked her up as an experiment to see if I could bear driving with a passenger again.
“Where to?” I had asked. My voice sounded strange to me, hoarse, unused.
“Where are you going?”
“Hemel Hempstead, you know, near Watford.”
Silence for the next ten miles or so. She seemed restless, either staring straight ahead or glancing over her shoulder. Her nervousness was infectious.
“Why is this demon chasing you?” Stupid question, but I had to say something.
“He loves me.” She sounded irritated, as if the answer should be obvious. Her accent was clipped, edged with ruling class superiority.
“Can he follow us? Has he got a car?” What sort did I have in mind? A red Plymouth like the one in the Stephen King novel?
“No…Yes.” She sighed, annoyed. “He hasn’t got a car, but he can follow us.”
“Can he fly?” A weak attempt at humour, though not met with the contempt it deserved.
“Yes, he can.”
Dump her, my head yelled. Now.
“Tell me about it.” So much for common sense.
“You don’t want to know.”
“I do. Really.” Unusually forthright of me. None of that enervating reticence with women I’d managed to develop since my own car journey to Hell two years ago.
Dear God, two years already…
She stared at me for a moment, as if appraising my suitability to receive whatever tale she had to tell. Then she sighed, leaned forward and looked down, long red nails pressed to her temples. Blonde hair fell forward to hide her face. “First my name. I’m Sara, okay?”
“Well, Mike, my parents are very wealthy and very beautiful, so I’m what you would call a poor little rich girl. Too much pocket money, too much time, too much every-bloody-thing. There’s a whole gang of us, a bunch of spoilt brats who wile away the daylight hours riding, sailing, and racing four-wheel drives over our daddy’s estates, then spend our nights getting pissed, stoned, and screwing each other. A fulfilling and productive lifestyle, don’t you think?”
Didn’t sound too bad to me.
“This current mess started when my chum” – the endearment was couched in bitter mockery – “Leanne found this ancient book in her daddy’s library. Pleasant little tome, all about black magic and witchcraft. She showed it to the gang and we decided to get together and raise a demon, just for a laugh. We said it would make a change from coke and fellatio.”
She made it sound like a drink.
“So we drew our pentagram, chanted our chants, killed our chicken, and giggled through the whole thing like the bunch of stupid bloody kids we were. Do you mind if I smoke?”
I didn’t, so she lit up, hands shaking.
“It worked, it actually bloody worked. The room suddenly went cold and the French windows blew open. That scared us. But nothing else happened, not then.” She dragged deeply at her cigarette and blew smoke in an elegant, disdainful manner that aroused me in the most alarming way.
“He came to me later that night, when I was in bed. I woke suddenly, and he was there. This gorgeous, huge, naked male. I wasn’t frightened, just asked him who he was. ‘I am Ash,’ he said. ‘You summoned me.’” She shuddered. “Then he fucked me. God, and how. He came back to me night after night, until it seemed that days were only meant for resting between fucks. Ash was all that mattered. All I ever thought about.”
The November sun was now a bloody disk brooding over the horizon, staining the lower sky red and silhouetting trees and pylons. I noticed that the petrol was low.
“Then it got scary,” Sara continued. “He began haunting me during the day. I saw his face in mirrors, reflected in shop windows, felt his breath on my neck. It was like being possessed.”
Another deep drag.
“So last night, to break the spell, I went to a nightclub dressed like a tart, intending to seduce the first man who looked at me more than once. But Ash was there, naked and angry. No one else could see him. No matter how much I screamed and ranted and tried to make them see. I remember being thrown out, but I can’t remember finding my car, or getting in. All I know is that I drove until I ran out of petrol, ran until I couldn’t run anymore, then walked and walked and bloody walked. Christ I was scared. No one would give me a lift. No one would help me, Mike.” She began to cry. “No one would bloody help me.”
After a while she wiped her eyes angrily with the back of her hand, then glanced over her shoulder. “Can’t you go any faster? I think he’s seen us.”
My right foot slammed down. Stupid, but I couldn’t help it. I was goose-bumped, shivering. Her story and obvious distress were getting to me.
Hesitant, nervous of rejection, I reached for her hand. She grabbed at mine and held it tight. Her hand felt small, delicate, her palm sweat-damped. She was shaking.
“He’s every-bloody-where, Mike. I feel as if I’m going mad.” She sniffed loudly, then screamed.
The shock made me scream as well.
There, on the side of the dual carriageway, a man; dark, shoulder-length curly hair, Jason King moustache, naked.
I knew it was him. For an instant our eyes locked and he peeled away flesh, muscle, and bone, laid open my soul, then whispered “wife killer” inside my head.
We were past. I heard fear-moaning and realised it was me, in harmony with Sara’s hysterical sobbing. My right foot was flat on the floor. The Astra estate’s engine roared as if outraged at such treatment.
A glance in the mirror. He was chasing us. Dear God, chasing us. Running along the hard shoulder, taking huge distorted strides. Like an image in a fish-eye lens, or a reflection in Satan’s fairground mirror.
I couldn’t think for Sara’s wailing. I wanted her to shut up, shut up, “Shut up!” She calmed slightly and glanced back. “You’re losing him. Faster Mike, for God’s sake, faster!”
“We need petrol.”
“What? No, he’ll catch us.”
“Look at the gauge, Sara. Look at it. Look!”
“Oh God, oh Christ,” she murmured, over and over. It sounded more like a prayer than blasphemy.
I glanced in the mirror again and saw nothing but darkening dual carriageway and newly ignited head and tail lamps. Ahead was Rivenhall; petrol station, Little Chef, lights, cars, people, normality, sanctuary. I swung in and parked beside a pump.
“Hurry Mike. Please hurry.”
No need to remind me. I was out, scrabbling at the lockable petrol cap, fumbling the nozzle into the aperture. The digital display counted the litres with torturous slowness. My hands shook, my eyes strayed across the forecourt, peering into the darkness beyond the island of electric light in which I hid.
Cars swept in and out. Engines stopped, idled, started. Doors opened and slammed. People talked, laughed. The warm glow spilling from the Little Chef brought on a coffee craving, reminded me that I was hungry, thirsty, and tired. I hadn’t stopped all day. It had been one breakdown after another to investigate and repair. Desperate, stress-shredded office managers needing their photocopiers and printers working, each one threatening that my bloody company would hear about it if I didn’t get them back on line instantly with a wave of my magic screwdriver.
Still, it was a job, the first I’d managed to hold down since –
Jogging onto the forecourt naked. Horns blared, offence was shouted, someone even laughed. This time he could be seen, which meant he was real.
Our eyes locked again and his pace increased to a run, those huge, distorted strides of his, eating the gap between us.
Almost upon me, barging a startled motorist aside, spilling wallet and coin across the concrete. I heard swearing, but saw only Ash, hands extended like claws – were claws. His eyes were white orbs. His mouth open, too wide, like the distended jaws of a hungry snake. Fangs instead of teeth and a flickering forked tongue. He whispered “Wife Killer,” again and I sobbed, couldn’t help it, couldn’t stop.
Leaping now, wolf-like, roaring –
Instinct made me do it, made me swing the pump nozzle round to spray petrol into Ash’s face.
His roar became a howl of pain. He crashed to the ground at my feet, clawing at his eyes.
I wrenched the car door open behind myself. Sara clawed and dragged at my clothes. I fell onto the driver’s seat. Sara crawled over me, elbow, knees, and heels poking and stabbing. For a moment, the barest instant, my terror was overwhelmed by perfume, woman smell, and the erotic rustle of material over skin.
I glimpsed Ash getting to his feet, dripping petrol, wavering. Saw Sara flick her lighted cigarette at him. There was blinding light, heat, and agonised screeching.
Sara still across my lap, I struggled into a sitting position and managed to shove the key into the ignition. We careered away from the pumps, my door flapping open, people scattering before us. In the mirror, a burning figure lurched to its feet and stumbled after us. Not dead. Ash wasn’t dead. Ash wasn’t ash. I laughed, a slightly hysterical sound.
Onto the slip road. Sara wrestled herself back onto her seat. I slowed just long enough to close my door. Then we were away, hurtling into darkness, gasping for breath, afraid to look in the mirror.
“Mike,” Sara said, after a long pause. Her voice was soft, tremulous, all arrogance and bitch-edge gone.
“Thank you.” Her hand came to rest on my thigh. She sighed and I sensed some sort of struggle taking place, culminating in: “Perhaps you should dump me.”
“I couldn’t do that, Sara.” Why not? I could drive away from this nightmare. The way I did before, leaving my dead behind. “Not to you.”
The hand on my thigh tightened. “Mike, don’t you understand? He’ll never give up. He’ll chase us forever.”
“Who are you?” Sarah asked.
“I told you. Mike – ”
“No. Who? Why are you helping me? Why didn’t you throw me out when I started talking demons?”
I shrugged. She probably didn’t see the gesture in the darkness. Anyway, she was busy lighting another cigarette.
“There are demons and there are demons,” I said at last.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Creatures like Ash. And demons you can’t see or fight.”
“Loneliness, guilt – ”
“I’d be glad to swap.”
“ – and the good old psychiatric wing of your friendly local hospital.”
“Oh, I see.” She sounded embarrassed. Then: “Perhaps it’s your turn to tell me about it.”
“You don’t want to know.” Déjà vu. We both laughed, a bitter sound.
“I do. Really.” Our laughter softened. Hers seeping in to spread a warmth through me that I hadn’t felt for a long time.
“My wife was killed in a car crash.” Dear God, I’d managed to say it without breaking down. “I was driving.” Not your fault, Mike. Van parked too near the junction, you couldn’t possibly have seen the other car as you pulled out. It was my fault though. I was driving so it was my fucking fault. Steady, Mike. Keep the door shut, keep it locked.
“Christ, Mike, I’m sorry.”
Shaking. Wasn’t going to give up though. Not now I’d started. “I drank at first. I thought that would shut the voices up.”
“In my head. My wife, God, Satan, demons, I don’t know who the hell they were.” Wife killer, they said. Wife killer. Wifekiller. WifekillerWIFEKILLER –
I felt Sara’s hand on my cheek. “Hey, Mike. It’s all right. You don’t have to tell me any more – ”
“The booze didn’t work. Neither did the psychiatrists or the drugs or the electric shock treatment. Oh, I made it look as if they did, but they didn’t. Nothing worked. Except this.”
“Driving. It’s why I’ve got this job, office equipment maintenance. Spending most my days alone, stuck behind the wheel of a car. A kind of penitence I suppose. Forcing myself to relive the accident over and over again.” I chuckled, an unhealthy sound. “So you see, Sara, I’m on the run from demons as well. No one understands, no one can help. No one even wants to.”
“I do,” Sara said so quietly I could barely hear her.
Sign board, green-glowing and disembodied in our headlights. Seven miles to the M25. I was disappointed. I wanted the journey to last forever –
Ash was on the bonnet.
Crouching, cat-like. A fire-ruined face twisted into a feral snarl, rags of burnt flesh flapping in the slipstream. He glowed as if still burning. I was screaming, or perhaps it was Sara, or both of us. I didn’t know and couldn’t tell.
He touched the windscreen, pushed a taloned hand through the glass as though it was water, reaching for my face, my eyes. I was driving blind, right foot slammed flat onto the floor. Too fast. A car horn blared somewhere outside, angry yet distant. I was frozen, transfixed by Ash’s sharp, sharp claw…
Sara wrenched the steering wheel from my grip. The car swerved left. Ash fell backwards and almost toppled onto the road, ripping his hand back through the windscreen to claw and scrabble at the smooth surface of the bonnet. I saw the hard shoulder, trees, hedges, closing in on my left. I twisted the wheel to the right. Something burst from my blind spot. Another horn blared.
Left again. Nearside wheels juddering along the bank, branches raking the bonnet and pummeling the windscreen.
Back onto the carriageway. Still flat out. Still yelling and screaming.
Sara’s screams became words: “We have to stop.”
“No. No. Mustn’t stop. We’ve lost him. He’s gone – ”
“We have to stop you stupid bastard!”
I was stung into silence.
She calmed down, softened. “I’m sorry Mike, but we need a place, a room, so we can face him down, get rid of him. There are rituals. I copied them out of Leanne’s book.” She produced a crumpled piece of A4 from her coat pocket. “I could have tried before, but I’m too frightened to do this on my own.” A pause. “And it might make things worse.”
“How much worse?”
“Other…things have to be summoned to take Ash back.”
“Demons on demons,” I muttered. “Okay, we’ll stop.”
Her hand returned to my thigh. “I’ll pay you back for this, Mike. Whatever you want.”
“Just stay with me, Sara.”
She leaned across to kiss me.
We booked into the Brentwood Post House, nestled in the traffic-noisy armpit of the A12/M25 junction. Our room was pleasantly square, clean and anonymous.
I slumped gratefully onto the bed. Sara thrust a heavy marker pen into my hand. “Draw a pentagram. On the floor, in front of the door.”
“What?” Uncomprehending, confused.
“Christ, don’t you know anything?” Fear was sharpening her tongue. “A five-pointed star. Make it big enough for a person to stand in. And hurry, for God’s sake.”
I dropped to my knees and began scrawling a star on the light fawn, short-piled carpet. Vaguely I wondered what the cleaner would make of it in the morning. Then I wondered if there would be a morning. My gut squirmed and the shaking got worse. We were trapped. If this didn’t work, there would be nothing but claws and teeth. And those eyes, slowly ripping my soul apart…
Sara was reading from the sheet of paper she had shown me, muttering to herself; dark, bad words that were nonetheless strangely comforting. Dear God, let her get this right.
“Finished,” I struggled to my feet.
“Blood,” Sara muttered. “Need something sharp.”
I produced a penknife from my jacket pocket and cracked the good Boy Scout joke.
She smiled weakly, took the knife from my hand, then stepped across to the pentagram and with a sudden, decisive movement, sliced the blade across her left palm. Blood spattered onto the carpet.
She spoke: “Darkest of Dark. Lightest of Light, come unto me. Lucifer Bright-Angel, Prince of the Powers of the air, come unto me, Lord of Lies – ”
The lights flickered and dimmed. The temperature dropped, I shivered uncontrollably. There was a smell of rotting meat. Though the window was shut, the curtains stirred and rustled. The glossy hotel pamphlets on the bedside table flapped open and flew onto the floor.
Sara stood before the pentagram, body rigid. “Morning Star,” she murmured and dropped the knife. I found myself going to her, holding her bleeding hand. It was trembling, slippery-hot.
I heard whisperings. “Doors are opening, little butterfly. Doors on doors.”
A glass smashed in the bathroom. We both flinched, hand crushing hand. The television blared into life, channel-skipping itself in a stroboscopic madness of blare and crackle. The bedside phone rang. A light bulb exploded in a sudden rain of sparks and glass.
Then silence, just as sudden, just as shocking.
Something came into the room. A shadow, glimpsed from the corner of the eye, an indistinct foulness staining the air. So oppressive, so coldly and absolutely malevolent that it made me cry. I couldn’t help it. I was frightened and filled with unutterable despair and loneliness and grief.
It spoke, a wet-breathed growl. “What do you want?” The sound of it brought a fresh wave of weeping. Each syllable drove fiery pain into my joints, weakening my legs, vice-crushing my arms and neck.
“Take Ash back to yourself.” Sara’s voice was barely audible.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes…Please…Please…” Sara almost broke then. I wanted to hold her, but couldn’t move.
“Doors on doors on doors…” it persisted. I saw them, dark doors slamming open, letting things through. Awful things.
Footsteps outside, Ash was coming.
“Take him away. Please take him…please…”
The footsteps grew louder, slowed, stopped. In the name of God, hurry up, don’t let him in here…
“He loves you Sara.”
“I don’t care.”
And the door burst open. Ash. Beautiful again. The perfection of him more terrible than his fire-ruin. I tried to avert my eyes from his, but his stare tore them back. He was in my skull again, chanting his now familiar litany, the acid lickings of that silent voice almost an old friend; wifekiller…wifekiller…
“Look at him little butterfly. Look at what you could have.” The growl of that other thing became persuasive, honey-dipped, not unpleasant. “Don’t you want him?”
“No…Yes…” She was giving in. Dear God, giving in.
“Sara,” I whispered. “Don’t – ”
“DO NOT INTERFERE MICHAEL WIFEKILLER.” The force of it slammed me backwards and crushed me against the bed. My bladder let go. I tasted blood – nosebleed.
Godlike, Ash towered over Sara, filling the open doorway, gently touching her face, whispering her name. I saw her shiver, heard her soft moans.
“Take…Ash…away.” Sara’s voice was a groan of effort. Please take him. Please…”
“As you wish Sara.” It sounded like genuine regret. “The choice is yours.”
Ash recoiled, there was hurt on his face. Then rage.
The illusion shattered. And Ash was a ruin of raw, fire-blistered flesh hanging in tatters from red-glistening muscle and white-gleaming bone. The grey white smoothness of his skull showed through a charred hole in his scalp. Blood and other ichors dripped from him. The stench of burned flesh slithered into my nostrils, churned my gut.
He roared, lurched towards us, stepped into the pentagram.
And was gone.
Air popped into the vacuum. Then nothing.
Sara stumbled backwards. I scrambled across the floor to catch her as she fell. She felt frail and small in my arms. We huddled together, both of us trembling, sobbing. Ash was gone. The other was gone.
But something else was out there, coming our way. I could feel it. A long way off, but coming.
Sara sobbed, then stirred in my arms. Her lips sought mine. Her breath was hot, I tasted tear-salt in my mouth. As I pushed her down onto the floor, let her pull me urgently down on top of her I saw her eyes. Hell eyes. Wild with the terror of what we had done, of what would come upon her. Upon us.
Doors had been opened...
No matter Sara. I’ll stay with you, because your demons are mine now and my demons are yours.
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